Analysis

Turkey's Gas Drilling Off Cyprus Coast Could Send Shock Waves Across the Mediterranean

In drilling for gas off the coast of Cyprus, Erdogan is shrugging off Western sanctions, while his supporters imply it’s all a Jewish plot

The Turkish drilling ship "Fatih" off the coast of Cyprus.
Turkish Defense Ministry via AP

“Russia cannot and will not take an inch of a step independently from Israel and the Jewish forces” in the United States, wrote Turkish columnist Yusuf Kaplan in an op-ed in Yeni Safak, a paper considered close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“We must be careful and think that Turkey could be pushed into a trap any moment by Russia, through the directives of the lords of the global system,” he added, referring to the Jews. Why? Because “Russia owes its presence in the region ... to Israel and the Jewish forces in the U.S.”

Warning of Jewish plots isn’t a new genre for Kaplan. In the past, he has warned about “an Arab-Israeli coalition whose goal is to isolate Turkey.” In this, he draws his inspiration from Erdogan, who likes to blame the “interest-rate mafia” for Turkey’s economic problems – and it’s clear who he means even when he doesn’t say so explicitly.

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Erdogan recently clipped the wings of this “mafia” when, in an unprecedented move, he fired the governor of the central bank, Murat Cetinkaya, because he refused to lower interest rates. But removing this latest hurdle in Erdogan’s race to save the Turkish economy may have dangerous ramifications that go beyond the nosedive of the Turkish lira.

Erdogan – along with his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, whom he appointed as minister of treasury and finance – has an original economic strategy. He argues that lowering interest rates will spur economic growth, since investors and ordinary people will be able to borrow more cheaply to build apartments and launch other projects, and this will renew the economic miracle Erdogan brought about 16 years ago, when he was first elected prime minister.

But there’s no guarantee this vision will come to pass. Investors are in no rush to come to Turkey, real estate sales have plummeted and the rating agency Fitch recently lowered the country’s credit rating. International investors and financial institutions fear that depriving the central bank of its independence and subordinating it to Erdogan via the governor he appointed may well cause further upset to the Turkish economy, increase inflation and drive down the lira, thereby making life even harder for Turks to repay the loans they took out in foreign currency. Turkey needs an economic turnaround that will satisfy the public and restore its faith in Erdogan’s leadership, which suffered a major blow when his candidate was defeated in a do-over election for the mayor of Istanbul. But Erdogan has evidently chosen to keep on walking through the dangerous minefield that has been dealing him and Turkey painful blows.

For instance, his decision to buy Russia’s S-400 antimissile system is likely to prompt American sanctions, such as Turkey’s ouster from the program to build the F-35 fighter jet, which was expected to bring billions of dollars into the state’s coffers (this is on top of a freeze on sales of the plane to Turkey). Granted, U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t enthusiastic about imposing stringent sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the S-400, but Congress may force his hand. And even if the sanctions are purely symbolic, like restricting visas for Turkish officials who want to travel to America, they will have a deterrent effect on anyone considering doing business in Turkey.

This week, Turkey also came under sanctions from the European Union, which is demanding that it stop exploring for gas in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. These sanctions include freezing 146 million Euros in aid that were supposed to help Turkey stabilize its economy in preparation for entering the EU, suspending talks on aviation agreements, halting high-level economic talks and reconsidering the 386 billion euros in loans that Turkey was supposed to receive from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu hastened to declare that Turkey wasn’t taking those sanctions seriously, because “The EU needs us,” and therefore, “They know that the decisions they took cannot be applied.” But Europe has plenty of other sanctions it could impose that would be far more painful.

Turkey is already operating two drilling platforms in waters that it defines as part of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. Çavusoglu announced that a third platform arrived recently and a fourth would soon join it. The drilling ships are escorted by Turkish patrol boats whose purpose is to defend them against any possible attack.

The only country that recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is Turkey. The EU’s position is that any division of resources between the two parts of the divided island will happen only when they reunify and the entire island becomes a single country with a single agreed-upon government. For now, however, no diplomatic solution to the split that began when Turkey occupied northern Cyprus in 1974 is visible on the horizon.

Turkey insists that it has every right to drill in these waters, because the gas lies on its continental shelf. But the EU doesn’t agree.

The fear is that this explosive diplomatic dispute, in which Washington also opposes Turkey’s behavior, will develop into a violent conflict that will affect all gas drilling in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Thus Erdogan has burdened Turkey with another regional conflict on top of its tense relations with Israel, its rift with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and its increasingly close ties with Russia, thereby presenting the country as a threat that investors and businessmen would do better to avoid.

But Erdogan doesn’t seem to be concerned about his country’s undeclared isolation. He views Europe as a paper tiger; Trump has patted him on the back; and Cyprus and even Greece are negligible compared to the Turkish army. And as for the Jewish mafia, he’ll break it.